In March of 2020, plane maker Airbus surprised the industry by announcing plans to get a hydrogen-powered aircraft into the air, ready for commercial use. Potential candidates presented by Airbus range from regional to intercontinental aircraft, but differ substantially in shape, from conventional looks to blended wing design. The presentation of the scheme is now followed by a first practical step aimed at accelerating the maturing of hydrogen-propulsion technologies.
Under the aircraft manufacturer’s Liquid Hydrogen scheme (LH2), Airbus intends to implement two Zero Emission Development Centers (ZEDC) to speed up the construction of tank systems capable of safely storing large amounts of LH2 fuel (cryogene). The emphasis is on safety, because gaseous hydrogen must be cooled down to a temperature of -250°C to liquify, and is considered highly explosive. That is one reason why Airbus decided to concentrate its efforts on building metallic hydrogen tanks instead of favoring synthetic composites, but does not exclude using carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer composites as an option.
Nantes and Bremen with different focal points
The ZEDCs will be established in Bremen, Northern Germany, and in Nantes, located at the Loire estuary in western France.
The technological development of the tanks will cover the full product and industrial capabilities from elementary parts, assembly, systems integration, and the cryogenic testing of the final liquid hydrogen (LH2) tank system, reads a release. “The design and integration of tank structures is crucial to the performance of a future hydrogen aircraft,” emphasizes Airbus.
In order to avoid redundant structures, both ZEDCs have different focal points. Bremen was chosen because of its diverse setup and decades of LH2 experience within Defense and Space and the Ariane Group. It will initially concentrate on system installation, as well as on the overall cryogenic testing of the tanks. Furthermore, this ZEDC will benefit from the wider hydrogen research ecosystem such as the Center for Eco-Efficient Materials and Technologies (ECOMAT), and from further synergies from space and aerospace activities. Over the years, Airbus has concentrated its space-related activities in Bremen, including missions to the ISS, or satellite programs.
Nantes was awarded a ZEDC contract because of its extensive knowledge in metallic structural technologies related to the center wing box, including the safety-critical center tank for commercial aircraft. The ZEDC in “Nantes will bring its ability to manage equally a wider range of metallic, composite technologies, and integration, as well as its experience in codesign activities on nacelle inlets, radomes, and center fuselage complex work packages,” Airbus states in its announcement. Further to this, the French ZEDC will benefit from the Nantes Technocenter skills and capabilities, supported by an innovative local ecosystem such as the IRT Jules Verne, dedicated to advanced manufacturing technologies.
Venturing into unknown territory
Asked about the timeframe of the LH2 tank development, Daniel Werdung of Airbus Communications, told CargoForwarder that the tank mission will be accomplished by 2023, followed by practical endurance tests two years later.
Due to this task, the European plane maker’s engineers and technicians are largely venturing into unknown territory, at least in civil aviation, where kerosene is predominantly stored in the aircraft’s wings. The only exception in commercial aviation is the A321 XLR (Extra Long Range), which is equipped with a fuel tank integrated into the fuselage section.
Future jetliners will look different
Hydrogen-powered aircraft will have a different shape in future compared to common jetliners flying today, because the wing is largely eliminated as a stowage space for LH2. Instead, wings will become part of the cabin carrying travelers and crew. Therefore, the LH2 tanks developed by the two ZEDCs could be the game changers favoring a blended-wing shaped aircraft, hence its future construction.
Asked about concept studies for LH2 freighters, Mr. Werdung said they are not currently part of the tank mission at the Bremen and Nantes ZEDCs.
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